How to Hold Your Breath

How to Furnish a Flat in a Weekend? The Low Carb Diet. To Floss or Not to Floss? Topiary for Beginners. A bookshelf of ‘How To’ guides is pretty commonplace in the homes of most young professionals (okay maybe not topiary bushes- let’s be honest who can really afford a garden in London?). After weekends arguing over Vargöns and Ulvsbos in IKEA, battling the 5:2 diet or fighting off Tinder dates, what happens when you find yourself in the middle of an economic crisis and everything that felt fundamental in your life becomes inconsequential? The ‘How to Guides have been replaced with ‘Economics of Selling Oneself’ and ‘How to Make Sure You Don’t Get Strangled.’

Zinnie Harris’ new play ‘How to Hold Your Breath’ for the Royal Court, takes an intriguing look at commercialism, whilst being based in London’s borough of the super-rich. After missing The Royal Exchange’s Hamlet last year, I was excited to see Maxine Peake treading the boards. She plays Dana, a woman living in Berlin who sleeps with a demon (Michael Shaeffer) who attempts to pay her 45 euros for the evening and doesn’t take kindly to her refusal.

She embarks on a journey with her pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) after receiving a final interview for a job in Alexandria. She is plagued by demon Jarron and as the European economy faces total collapse, she feels he is responsible. We see the sisters face previously unimaginable struggles as they lose access to bank accounts, struggle to travel across borders and Jasmine has desperate need for hospital care after miscarrying. Following a horrifyingly intense monologue (where I felt the word ‘blood’ was used far too much) there is injection of light humour in the form of a spirit guide Librarian (Peter Forbes). He surfaces to offer assistance in the form of ‘How To’ guides as Dana and Jasmine eventually find themselves as wandering refugees attempting to board a boat to Africa.

There is a frightening element to Harris’ play, that is perhaps is a little too close to home. The turn of events that are portrayed could happen and indeed has happened in nearby Europe; most recently the collapse of Greece. It made me think also of the London riots and the fact that when faced with overwhelming pressures we are essentially, underneath everything, animals.

The Royal Court’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone (who has worked with Harris previously) directs this dystopian vision, as we move from Chloe Lamford’s furniture store to a junk yard full of looters and scavengers. The central platform moves and tilts as Dana loses her grasp of reality and control. Even the hanging posters begin with an idyllic vision of a family in a field with the words ‘Live Well’ and eventually get stripped back to a run down images of illness and death.

How To Hold Your Breath is a critique of the modern world, hard hitting and overwhelming. At times it feels heavily overloaded with symbolism and requires a certain amount of dissection once you get home to fully appreciate all the aspects of the play. At the same time as being subtle, other scenes can also be a little too “in your face”. Peake is a sensation to watch and commands an intense stage presence, she offers clarity through some of the murkier parts of the play and leads us strongly through her world as it collapses around her.

How to Hold Your Breath run until 21st March at the Royal Court.

(Photos courtesy of the Royal Court)

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